24th Street Showdown: Cindy Sherman v. Richard Prince

Score a victory for female artists in Chelsea galleries this month. Women are still routinely underrepresented in museum collections (see Jerry Saltz’s debate-sparking tally of MoMA’s permanent collection), but not so in the commercial realm in December, where exhibitions by the likes of Cindy Sherman, Anne Chu, Tomma Abts and others stand out as the best of the moment. I found myself pitching an all-female list of reviews to an editor last week–probably a first for me in over ten years of writing art criticism.

Representations of women, however, are another thing. Two prominent cases in point are Richard Prince’s show at Gagosian Gallery and Cindy Sherman’s at Metro Pictures, both a study in how to demean their prominent female figures. But while Sherman demonstrates her staying power by incisively skewering the absurdities of conspicuous consumption, Prince is churning out product to pass off to said consumers.

Channeling a Gauguin-in-Tahiti impulse and apparently referring to his birthplace, the Panama Canal Zone, Prince’s giant collages pair porn shots of women with occasional Rastafarian characters in a tropical setting. Whatever civilizing impulse reigned Prince in with his merely suggestive ‘nurses’ and ‘girlfriends’ series in the past has evidently given way to an orgy of bad taste compounded by the sheer volume of monotonously similar work crammed into Gagosian’s cavernous space. The mixed race encounters recall Hannah Hoch’s Dada collage, but eighty years of cultural theory later it’s hard to see Prince’s more graphic version as anything other than gratuitous sex and offensive stereotype whether or not it’s intended to be tongue-in-cheek.

Meanwhile, down the block, Cindy Sherman’s new photo series admittedly also debases her subjects but without removing all of their dignity. Once again, she dons a range of disguises and this time, adopts an enormous scale to convey the grandeur that her new subjects (ladies-who-lunch) would presumably like to project. She masterfully evokes the foibles of a “too much money, too little taste” crowd and certainly doesn’t seem to be afraid of alienating the percentage of her audience who must fall into this category themselves. The enormous size of the photos reads as a jab at the current art world taste for splashy big artwork with high production values, revealing Sherman to be at the top of her game over thirty years after she started her landmark Untitled Film Stills series.

What do you think of these two new bodies of work? Check out the exhibition review I shot on video this weekend of Sherman’s work, and post a comment.